Visiting Tiananmen Square should rank highly on anybodies list when travelling in China. Named after the Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) which separates it from the Forbidden City at it’s northern end, the square is enormous, having been expanded to four times it’s original size under Mao Zedong’s leadership in the 1950s. Mao’s vision was to create the largest and most spectacular square in the world, capable of holding over 500,000 people and the size of the square is certainly the first thing that strikes the curious tourist.
Flanked on all sides by grand and imposing buildings, all bearing the signs and symbols of the ruling Communist Party, the square is also home to the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Mausoleum of the late Chairman Mao. Visited on a sunny day, it makes the perfect place for a stroll amongst the modern and austere architecture of modern China and the flamboyant and impressive palaces of the country’s imperial past.
Finding Tiananmen Square is easy. Finding your way in, however, can prove difficult depending on which way you approach it.
Flanked on all sides by busy roads, seperated from the pavement by fences, the only way into the square itself is via a handful of subways staffed by security guards. These are positioned in such a way that just when you think you’re about to enter the square, a sign directs you down another flight of stairs and you emerge once again on the wrong side of a road with the square in the distance. Navigating the warren of subways, behind large groups of tourists all invariably following a lady with a Chinese flag on a stick who is shouting instructions over the heads of other tourists, can be confusing, although the tour groups themselves also provide a useful tip as to where to head. You know you’re in the right place when you find yourself in a queue, waiting to have your bag scanned by the very militaristic security guards who then wave you up a staircase into the square itself.
Approaching from the south side, you walk towards the centre of the square along the side of Mao’s Mausoleum. This was the first stop of our trip despite it not being appropriate for children (the plan was for the children to stay outside with mum, who wasn’t really interested in ‘that kind of thing’).
Completed in May 1977, The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (to give it its proper name) has been home to the former premier since his death and ranks highly as a ‘popular tourist attraction’ for visitors of all nationalities.
A visit to see the Great Helmsman consists largely of waiting in line to file past the leader who has been lying in state since the hall opened. Amongst the many prohibited actions during a visit are ‘laughing’, ‘stopping’ and taking photographs. Visitors are also able to show their respect by laying plastic flowers which can be purchased outside (and are collected and reused the next day by some accounts).
Much to my dismay, the marked area for queuing outside the mausoleum was empty as we approached and upon arriving it became clear that for whatever reason, the mausoleum wasn’t open to visitors that day (Wednesday for anybody that’s interested). I compared my disappointment to visiting Disneyland and being told that Mickey Mouse wasn’t home. My wife thought it was a pretty ridiculous analogy.
Playing Tag, Drinking Coke, Taking Photos with Locals
I couldn’t help but sense a certain amount of irony in buying Coca Cola from a trader in the square halfway between Mao’s mausoleum and the huge picture of him which hangs from the Tiananmen at the north end. Just behind the mausoleum itself, across the road towards Qianmen, is a KFC, a McDonalds and a Pizza Hut. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Chairman himself would have thought of this.
But then this contrast of old school, imposing communism and a changing population hungry for western brands and lifestyles also facilitated another smiling inducing experience – everyone wanted to have photographs taken with us. And not just with the children, as was the case in India. We met a guy who just wanted a photograph with me and woman who confidently appeared from nowhere to snap a picture with my wife. Parents thrust their children at our two young ones and we all took turns to take photographs. And for half an hour in sunny Tiananmen Square we were just parents encouraging our children to play together and smiling and laughing as we took pictures to show our families and remember the moment.
And that was my favourite thing about Tiananmen Square. For all the controversy surrounding the history of the place itself and the political ins and outs of those responsible for its expansion and many of the buildings surrounding it; our children saw it as a great place to play tag and other parents saw it as a place for their children to get to know ours, even if only for a minute or two.
So we got lost, we couldn’t find our way in and Mao wasn’t accepting visitors. But we did take lots of photographs and make lots of small connections with people we will in all probability never meet again. And when all is said and done, isn’t that what travelling is all about?
A fantastic cultural experience, highly recommended for all travellers, including families with children of all ages.